And we’re back! We’ve hit Murder House, Briarcliff Mental Institution, Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies, Elsa’s Cabinet of Curiosities and now the violence and oddities are being relocated to the Hotel Cortez in California for the fifth season of American Horror Story. The first episode, “Checking In,” has all the problems we’ve come to expect from the anthology series, but like most previous seasons, not a single one will stop you from wanting more.
Problem number one, the overabundance of seemingly important characters. I much prefer to kick off reviews/recaps with plot points and take it from there, but there’s so much happening in “Checking In” that we have to take it character by character. So let’s begin with the queen bee, Lady Gaga as The Countess. Does Gaga have acting chops? It’s far too soon to tell, especially considering about half of her screen time in this episode plays out like a music video, but it’s also very clear that this role was written for her and that Ryan Murphy and co. know exactly how to maximize her potential.
The Countess appears to rule Hotel Cortez from the penthouse with folks like Iris (Kathy Bates) and Sally (Sarah Paulson) working as her minions/servants. Iris is busy imprisoning unsuspecting hotel guests in case The Countess wants a nosh, but that doesn’t stop her from venturing out with her boy toy, Donovan (Matt Bomer), and bringing back some tasty treats on her own. Thanks to a brief flashback, we come to learn that these four characters share quite the past. Back in 1994, Sally brought Donovan to the Cortez to get high while Donovan’s mother, Iris, followed right behind. When Donovan overdosed, Iris decided to push Sally out a window. Meanwhile, The Countess took a liking to Donovan’s dead body, and especially his jawline. Assuming The Countess is a straightforward vampire, she must have been able to turn him and bring him back to life. As for Sally, it’s likely that the Hotel Cortez is similar to Murder House in that anyone who dies on the premises remains on the premises in the afterlife.
All four characters introduce loads of curious facets and rules of the world, but at this point, Iris is the only one who feels like a real person. The Countess, Sally and Donovan continue to make me miss the days when American Horror Story wasn’t all about sex, gaud and theatricality, but rather about horrible and disturbingly inventive things happening to real people. If you feel the same way, Wes Bentley is the show’s saving grace.
He steps in as John Lowe, a detective who starts receiving sinister phone calls from an anonymous person. Bentley is definitely running with some very familiar cop cliches, but he also proves to be a charismatic, likable and, most importantly, natural lead. And the same goes for Chloe Sevigny who plays his wife, Alex. Even though there’s a serious rift between the two characters, the chemistry is definitely there and they wind up making the strongest impression because they’re engaging characters you can care about. Plus, their scare scenes are monumentally more effective. It might be wow-worthy to see a naked Matt Bomer and Lady Gaga cuddling on a bed doused in blood, but some of the most haunting scares of the episode are the murder scenes John surveys and the sequence during which his son vanishes at an amusement park.
However, that’s not to say there’s isn’t potential in the show’s quirkier scenarios. One of the most intriguing of the bunch is the situation that Lyric Lennon’s character finds himself in. He plays Lachlan Drake, Will Drake’s (Cheyenne Jackson) son. Will is the man who just bought the Cortez from The Countess, which comes as quite the shock to Iris and Donovan. During Will and Lachlan’s first visit to the penthouse, Donovan entertains Will while The Countess takes Lachlan to a hidden room where a whole bunch of kids are eating candy and playing video games like zombies, including John’s missing son, Holden. What’s The Countess doing with these children? Will Lachlan cave to the temptation? Who knows, but between the bold visuals and the kookiness of the whole situation, I’m very curious to find out.
So we’ve got a mixed bag here. On the one hand, “Checking In” rocks a downright stunning primary location that director of photography Michael Goi clearly knows how to shoot very well, the place is absolutely overflowing with nightmare fuel and the whole thing has this magnetizing quality to it that’ll undoubtedly pull you in, however, it’s also quite clear that Murphy and his team are still a bit too resolute on upping the shock value of the show at the expense of strong storytelling. You can’t just throw in violent, blood-soaked sex scenes and expect the outrageous images to justify them. They need context and meaning, otherwise they just leave you feeling dirty.
★★★ Good — Proceed with cautious optimism.